The candidates that corporate executives like

In my two posts titled Meet the Villagers (see here and here), I argued that the oligarchy that runs the US decide early on who they approve of to be political leaders and then use the media to make sure that everyone else is eliminated from the race early. The high-handedness of the media in deciding what views we should be exposed to was on extraordinary display when MSNBC first invited Dennis Kucinich to appear in the Nevada debate because he had met their criteria, and then at the last minute changed their criteria to exclude him. (I suspect that when they first set the rule about including only the top four candidates, they assumed that the fourth would be a Villager-acceptable candidate like Biden or Dodd or Richardson.) They thus ensured that issues like single-payer health insurance and the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and the closing of bases there (to name just a few issues) would not be raised in the debate.

Recall that I said that the Villagers want election campaigns in which there is a consensus amongst the candidates to support the issues that the oligarchy care about. We are almost there.

Now a January 11, 2008 Reuters article by Kevin Drawbaugh has actually asked corporate executives which candidates they like and fear and the results bear out what I said. Of the leading candidates, they like Clinton and McCain and Romney and think they can deal with Obama.

The corporate suits fear John Edwards most. In fact, the title of the piece is “Corporate Elite Fear Candidate Edwards.” Mike Huckabee is the most feared candidate on the Republican side. This is because although both their policy platforms are hardly radical, neither is strictly following the pro-business script that gets Villager approval.

The media has, as always, dutifully picked up on these cues, especially on the Democratic side. The Washington Post dismisses Edwards as “angry” (anyone who highlights and attacks the corporate control of US politics is almost invariably described as “angry” or as otherwise irrational) and insists that this is already a two-person race between Clinton and Obama. Unsurprisingly, the more overtly right-wing corporate mouthpiece Fox News also attacks Edwards.

But the best way to undermine a candidacy is by ignoring it, especially in the early stages, the way that the Edwards, Dodd, Biden, Richardson, Kucinich, and Gravel candidacies were largely ignored. If not for the televised debates, these people would have been largely invisible. Another way you eliminate those whom you don’t feel deserve to be in the race is to give extraordinary attention to trivial differences among the Villager-approved candidates so that all the oxygen is used up discussing absurdly unimportant issues.

For example, by focusing heavily on spats between Obama and Clinton (Did she ‘play the race card’?), and on trivialities (Did she really cry after Iowa? Is he secretly a Muslim?), and on topics like gender and ethnicity and Clinton’s ‘likability’ and even the way she laughs (!) rather than on policy issues, the media effectively avoid talking about other candidates and thus give voters the impression that this is now a two-person contest. This despite the fact that some polls suggest that Edwards is the Democrat most likely to beat any Republican in the presidential race, while Hillary Clinton fares much worse than Edwards and Obama.

As the pro-Democratic blog Firedoglake summarizes: “If Hillary’s the Democratic nominee, we could very easily lose to any likely GOP nominee. If Obama’s the nominee, he does OK so long as he doesn’t face McCain. But if Edwards is the nominee, we’re sitting pretty. Which, I suspect, is one reason why Big Media hates John Edwards so much and does everything it can to destroy him. (Speaking of which: KingOneEye at DailyKos pointed out this morning how the NYT is ignoring a key result of its own poll on the race — namely, that as more people get to know him, Edwards’ favorability rating keeps going up.)” Greg Sargent also notes a study that supports the contention that the media is underreporting Edwards.

On the Republican side the Villagers have not been able to narrow the contest as effectively, to focus just on McCain and Romney. Huckabee keeps bobbing up to the surface although they seem to have effectively buried Ron Paul’s candidacy, although the latter is doing as well as, or better than, Villager-approved candidates Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani who still get a lot of media play. It will be interesting to see if and for how long Huckabee can withstand the media pressure to disappear.

David Sirota tries to combat the “just a two-person Democratic race” narrative fostered by the Villagers:

For those of you who think the Democratic presidential nomination fight is just a two-way race between Obama and Clinton, check out this brand new poll from the Reno Gazette-Journal. Yup, that’s right – it shows the Nevada caucus race [which will be held on Saturday-MS] a three-way, dead heat with John Edwards right in the mix.

Interestingly, this poll comes right on the heels of the Establishment viciously ratcheting up its angry attacks on the Edwards candidacy. Late last week, we saw a Reuters story headlined “Corporate Elite Fear Candidate Edwards” detailing how Wall Street moneymen and K Street lobbyists are frightened about Edwards populist, power-challenging message against greed and corruption. We also saw self-anointed Democratic “expert” Lawrence O’Donnell pen a fulminating screed demanding Edwards get out of the race – not surprising coming from a man who made his name running the U.S. Senate Finance Committee – long the most corrupt, lobbyist-ravaged panel in all of Washington (somehow, running the U.S. Congress’s version of a pay-to-play casino now makes people credible “experts” in campaign strategy and political morality).

According to the nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism, Edwards has long faced a media blackout – one that at least some honest media brokers like Keith Olbermann have noted. As I said a long time ago, that Edwards has even been able to compete in such a hostile environment is a testament to the power of his message.

The question we should ask is what the hostility and media blackout is really all about? I’d say the media’s behavior is motivated by the same impulses that moves lobbyists to whine and cry to Reuters and self-important bloviators like O’Donnell to publicly burst a blood vessel on the Huffington Post – the people who have gotten used to the status quo are truly terrified by any candidates who they really believe will change things and threaten their power and status. Edwards is just such a candidate – one who threatens to muck up what the media and political elite want to be a race between two “nonthreatening,” Wall Street-approved candidates. Obviously, it’s a three-way race at this very moment – whether the Establishment likes that or not.

Incidentally, this is why efforts to broaden the base of voters are almost always done by grass-roots activist groups working independently of the major parties. These new voters are unpredictable and hence undesirable to the Villagers. The pro-business/pro-war single party is quite comfortable with the way the current political system works since it gives a huge advantage to the status quo.

POST SCRIPT: Religion and politics in the US

British comedian Pat Condell gives us his take on this topic, in a clip he calls “Pimping for Jesus.” Condell’s home page cheerfully describes his attitude to religion: “Hi, I’m Pat Condell. I don’t respect your beliefs and I don’t care if you’re offended. Cheers.”

Trying to assuage guilt

On my return from Sri Lanka last week, I read the back issues of the Cleveland newspapers and found that a big story was the vicious beating of a middle-aged white man by a group of six black teenagers who had accosted him while he was on a walk in his neighborhood. The man was saved from possible death because of the alarm raised by a resident (who is a faculty member at Case) who had observed the assault from his home front window and raised the alarm, which caused the attackers to flee.
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Jury service and jury nullification-2

The fourth time I was empanelled was for a criminal case involving charges of felonious assault where the defense said that it would argue self-defense. Once again, there was an oral voir dire, which included questions about whether we had ever been involved in any physical altercation.

It was during the voir dire that I ran into a problem. One of the prosecuting counsel asked if the jurors would be willing to convict a person on the facts of the case even if they felt the law under which the person was being prosecuted was unjust. It was clear that he expected you to answer ‘yes’ to this question. We have all seen at least some courtroom dramas where the judge instructs the jury on the law to be applied and the jury is asked to judge based only on the facts of the case, and not to judge the validity of the law itself.
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Jury service and jury nullification-1

By a coincidence, while writing and posting my series on the law and religion in public schools, I was also called for jury service and spent the better part of the week of November 5, 2007 in the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in downtown Cleveland.

I feel strongly that the jury system is one of the greatest inventions of modern society and has been the foundation for democracy and creating and preserving freedoms. So I feel that to serve on a jury is a privilege and do not resent doing my time on the jury though it does involve some minor inconveniences and disruptions in work and home routine.

This was the third time I have been called for jury duty but I have yet to actually sit in on a case. For those not familiar with how it works, at least in Cuyahoga County where I live, when you are called for jury duty to the Common Pleas Court, it is not for a particular case but to be part of a large pool of jurors that serve many courts. So much of the time is spent waiting until your name is randomly called as needed if a case cannot be settled and should need to go to trial.
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Why rush election results?

Ever since election day on November 6, 2007 news reports in Cleveland have been obsessing over the fact that the results were delayed by a couple of hours due to a systems crash that required the backup to kick in.

I am puzzled by this obsession with speed in elections. Why is there such a rush to get election results out so quickly? This drive for speed seems particularly paradoxical in the US where election campaigns are dragged out longer than in any other country and where there is a long time interval between voting day and the newly elected person actually taking office. New office holders typically take over at the beginning of the following year, allowing for a two-month transition period. The new president does not take the oath of office until January 20.
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What is science?

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

Because of my interest in the history and philosophy of science I am sometimes called upon to answer the question “what is science?” Most people think that the answer should be fairly straightforward. This is because science is such an integral part of our lives that everyone feels that they intuitively know what it is and think that the problem of defining science is purely one of finding the right combination of words that captures their intuitive sense.
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Necessary and sufficient conditions

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

The problem of finding definitions for things that clearly specify whether an object belongs in that category or not has long been recognized to be a knotty philosophical problem. Ideally what we would need for a good definition is to have both necessary and sufficient conditions, but it is not easy to do so.

A necessary condition is one that must be met if the object is to be considered even eligible for inclusion in the category. If an object meets this condition, then it is possible that it belongs in the category, but not certain. If it does not meet the condition, then we can definitely say that it does not belong. So necessary conditions for something can only classify objects into “maybe belongs” or “definitely does not belong.”

For example, let us try to define a dog. We might say that a necessary condition for some object to be considered as a possible dog is that it be a mammal. So if we know that something is a mammal, it might be a dog or it might be another kind of mammal, say a cat. But if something is not a mammal, then we know for sure it is not a dog.

A sufficient condition, on the other hand, acts differently. If an object meets the sufficient condition, then it definitely belongs. If it does not meet the sufficient condition, then it may or may not belong. So the sufficient condition can be used to classify things into “definitely belongs” or “maybe belongs.”

So for the dog case, if a dog has papers certified by the American Kennel Association, then we can definitely say it is a dog. But if something does not have such papers it may still be a dog (say a mixed breed) or it may not be a dog (it may be a table).

A satisfactory demarcation criterion would have both necessary and sufficient conditions because only then can we say of any given object that it either definitely belongs or it definitely does not belong. Usually these criteria take the form of a set of individually necessary conditions that, taken together, are sufficient. i.e., Each condition by itself is not sufficient but if all are met they become sufficient.

It is not easy to find such conditions, even for such a seemingly simple category as dogs, and that it the problem. So for the dog, we might try define it by saying that it is a mammal, with four legs, barks, etc. But people who are determined to challenge the criteria could find problems (What exactly defines a mammal? What is the difference between an arm and a leg? What constitutes a bark? Etc. We can end up in an infinite regression of definitions.)

This is why philosophers like to say that we make such identifications (“this is a dog, that is a cat”) based on an intuitive grasp of the idea of “similarity classes,” things that share similarities that may not be rigidly definable. So even a little child can arrive at a pretty good idea of what a dog is without formulating a strict definition, by encountering several dogs and being able to distinguish what separates dog-like qualities from non-dog like qualities. It is not completely fool proof. Once in a while we may come across a strange looking animal, some exotic breed that baffles us. But most times it is clear. We almost never mistake a cat for a dog, even though they share many characteristics, such as being small four-legged mammals with tails that are domestic pets.

Anyway, back to science, a satisfactory demarcation would require that we be able to find both necessary and sufficient criteria that can be used to define science, and use those conditions to separate ideas into science and non-science. Do such criteria exist? To answer that question we need to look at the history of science and see what are the common features that are shared by those bodies of knowledge we confidently call science.

This will be discussed in the next posting.

Improving the quality of our snap judgments

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

In a previous post, I mentioned that my Race IAT results indicated that I had no automatic preference for black or white people. This surprised me, frankly. Although I am intellectually committed to thinking of people as equal, I am still subjected to the same kinds of images and stereotypes as everyone else in society so I expected to have at least a small automatic preference for white people. But the section on Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink on ‘priming’ experiments might give an explanation for the null result.

The priming experiments were done by psychologist John Bargh. What he did was give two randomly selected groups of undergraduate students a small test involving words. The results of the word test itself were not relevant. What was relevant was that the first set of students encountered words like “aggressively”, “bold, “rude”, “bother”, etc. in their test while the second set encountered words like “respect”, “considerate”, “patiently”, “polite”, etc.

After they had done the word test, the students were asked to go down the hall to the person running the experiment to get their next assignment. This was the real experiment because it had been arranged to have a confederate blocking the doorway, carrying on an inane and seemingly endless conversation with the experimenter. The experiment was designed to see if the set of students who had been unknowingly ‘primed’ with aggressive words would take longer to interrupt this conversation than those who had been primed with polite words. Bargh expected to see a difference, but expected that difference to be measured in milliseconds. He said “I mean, these are New Yorkers. They aren’t going to just stand there. We thought maybe a few seconds, or a minute at most.”

What he found was that the people primed to be rude eventually interrupted after an average of five minutes, but 82% of the people primed to be polite did not interrupt at all, even after ten minutes which was the cut-off time that had been pre-set for the experiment, thinking that no one would ever wait that long.

What these and other priming experiments suggest is that the kinds of experiences we have carry their effects subconsciously over to the next events, at least for some time.

This may explain my negative result because for some time now I have been studying the achievement gap between black and white students in the US. The more I looked at it, the more I became convinced that the concept of race is biologically indefensible, that it cannot be the cause of the gap, and that the reasons for the gap have to be looked for elsewhere.

Since my book on the subject called The Achievement Gap in US Education: Canaries in the Mine came out in June 2005, I had been thinking a lot about these ideas at the same time as I took the test, and so I was probably ‘primed’ to think that there is no fundamental difference between the races, and hence my null result on the Race IAT test.

This ties in with other research that I quote in my book that deals with the role that teacher expectations of students play in student achievement. Teacher expectations are an important factor but a lot of the efforts to improve teacher expectations of low-achieving students have been along the lines “All children can learn!” sloganeering. But having teachers just saying this or plastering it on school walls may not help much, if they are not convinced of its truth. If people are conscious that they are being primed, then the priming effect disappears.

What is needed is for teachers to improve their overall expectations of students is for them to have opportunities to actually see for themselves traditionally underachieving students excelling. If they can have such experiences, then the inevitable snap judgments they make about students, and which can have an effect on student performance, may be more equitable than they are now.

I have long been in favor of diversity in our educational environments but my reasons were more social, because I felt that we all benefit from learning with, and from, those whose backgrounds and experiences differ from our own. But it seems that there is an added bonus as well. When we have a broader base of experience on which to base our judgments, our snap judgments tend to be better.

Snap judgments and prejudices

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

In an earlier post, I described Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink about the way we instinctively make judgments about people. The way we make snap judgments is by ‘thin-slicing’ events. We take in a small slice of the phenomena we observe and associate the information in those slices with other measures. People who make good snap judgments are those people who associate the thin-slice information with valid predictors of behavior. People who make poor or prejudicial judgments are those people who associate the thin-slice information with poor predictors.

Think about what you observe about a person immediately as that person walks into your view. Gender, ethnicity, height, weight, color, gait, dress, hair, demeanor, eyes, looks, physique, gestures, voice, the list just goes on. We sweep up all these impressions in a flash. And based on them, whether we want to or not, we make a judgment about the person. Different people will weigh different elements in the mix differently.

If someone comes into my office wearing a suit, my initial impression of the person is different than if she had come in wearing jeans. (If you were mildly surprised by my using the pronoun ‘she’ towards the end of the last sentence, it is because, like me, you implicitly associate suits with male attire, so that the first part of the sentence made you conjure up a mental image of a man.)

A personal example of snap judgments occurs when I read Physics Today which I get every month. The obituary notices in have the magazine have a standard form. There is a head-shot of the person, with the name as the header, and one or two column inches describing the person.

Almost all of the obituaries are of old white men, not surprising for physicists of the generation that is now passing away. I found myself looking at the photo and immediately identifying whether the person was of English nationality or not. And I was right a surprising number of times. And I was not reasoning it through in any conscious way. As soon as I saw the picture came into view, I’d find myself thinking “English” or “not English”. I don’t know the basis of my judgments. But as I said, I was right surprisingly often.

Gladwell describes a very successful car salesman who over the years has realized that gender, ethnicity, clothes, etc. are not good predictors of whether the person is likely to buy a car or not. Someone who his fellow salespeople might ignore or dismiss because he looks like a rustic farmer, this salesman takes seriously. And because this salesman has been able to shape his intuition to ignore superficial or irrelevant things, his senses are better attuned to pick up on those cues that really matter.

Some of the strongest associations we make are those based on ethnicity, gender, and age. We immediately associate those qualities with generalizations associated with those groupings.

People are not always comfortable talking about their attitudes on race, gender, and other controversial topics. This is why surveys on such topics are unreliable, because people can ‘psyche out’ the tests, answering in the way they think they are expected to, the ‘correct’ way, rather than what they actually feel. This is why opinion polls on such matters, or in elections where the candidates are of different races or ethnicities, are hard to rely on.

There is a website, developed by researchers at Harvard University, that recognizes this problem. They have designed a survey instrument that tries to overcome this feature by essentially (as far as I can tell) measuring the time taken to answer their questions. In other words, they are measuring the time taken for you to psyche out the test. Since we have much less control over this, the researchers believe that this survey gives a better result. They claim that you cannot change your score by simply taking the test over and over again and becoming familiar with it.

If you want to check it out for yourself, go to the test site, click on “Demonstration”, then on “Go to Demonstration Tests”, then on “I wish to proceed”. This takes you to a list of Implicit Association Tests (or IAT) and you can choose which kinds of associations you wish to check that you make.

I took the Race IAT because that was what was discussed in Gladwell’s book, and it took me less than five minutes to complete. This test looks at the role that race plays in making associations. In particular it looks at whether we instinctively associate black/white people with good/bad qualities.

It turns out that more than 80% of people who have taken this test have pro-white associations, meaning that they tend to associate good qualities with white people and bad qualities with black people. This does not mean that such people are racists. They may well be very opposed to any kind of racist thinking or policies. What these tests are measuring are unconscious associations that we pick up (from the media, the people we know, our community, etc.) without being aware of them, that we have little control over.

Gladwell himself says that the test “always leaves me feeling a bit creepy.” He found himself being rated as having a moderate automatic preference for whites although he labels himself half black because his mother is Jamaican.

I can see why this kind of test is unnerving. It may shake our image of ourselves and reveal to us the presence of prejudices that we wish we did not have. But if we are unconsciously making associations of whatever kind, isn’t it better to know this so that we can take steps to correct for them if necessary? The successful car salesman became so because he realized that people in his profession made a lot of the unconscious associations that were not valid and had to be rejected. And he used that knowledge in ways that benefited him and his customers.

Although you cannot change your Race IAT scores by simply redoing the test, there are other things that can change your score. When I took the Race IAT, the results indicated that I have no automatic preference for blacks or whites. In a later posting, I will talk about the effects that ‘priming’ might have on the test results, and how that might have affected my results.

POST SCRIPT: Saying Iraq and Iran

I noticed that President Bush pronounces Iran the same way that I do (“E-rahn”) but pronounces Iraq as “Eye-rack” (instead of “E-rahk”), which really grates on me. He is not the only one who does this.

I don’t know how the people who live in those two countries pronounce the names but it seems reasonable to me to pronounce the two names similarly except for the last letter. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, which provides audio as well, agrees with me on this.

Snap judgments

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. It deals with how we all make snap judgments about people and things, sometimes within a couple of seconds or less. Gladwell reports on a whole slew of studies that suggest that we have the ability to ‘thin-slice’ events, to make major conclusions from just a narrow window of observations.

I first read about this as applied to teaching in an essay by Gladwell that appeared in the New Yorker (May 29, 2000) where he described research by psychologists Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal who found that by showing observers silent videoclips of teachers in action, the observers (who had never met the teachers before) were able to make judgments of teacher effectiveness that correlated strongly with the evaluations of students who had taken an entire course with that teacher. (Source: Half a Minute: Predicting Teacher Evaluations From Thin Slices of Nonverbal Behavior and Physical Attractiveness, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1993, vol. 64, No. 3, 431-441.)

This result is enough to give any teacher the heebie-jeebies. The thought that students have formed stable and robust judgments about you before you have even opened your mouth on the very first day of the very first class is unnerving. It seems so unfair that you are being judged before you can even begin to prove yourself. But, for good or bad, this seems to be supported by other studies, such as those done by Robert Boice in his book Advice for New Faculty Members.

The implication for this is that the cliché “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” is all too true. And what Gladwell’s New Yorker article and book seem to suggest is that this kind of thin-slicing is something that all of us do all the time. But not all of us do it well. Some people use thin-slicing to arrive at conclusions that are valid, others to arrive at completely erroneous judgments.

Those who do it well tend to be people who have considerable experience in that particular area. They have distilled that experience into some key variables that they then use to size up the situation at a glance, often without even consciously being aware of how they do it.

Seen in this way, the seemingly uncanny ability of people to identify at a glance who the good and bad teachers are might not seem that surprising. Most people have had lots of experience with many teachers in their lives, and along the way have unconsciously picked up subtle non-verbal cues that they use to correlate with good and bad teaching. They use these markers as predictors and seem to be quite good at it.

I was self-consciously reflecting on this last week when I ran two mock-seminars for visiting high-school seniors as part of “Experience Case ” days. The idea was to have a seminar class for these students so that they could see what a seminar would be like if they chose to matriculate here. I found that just by glancing around the room at the assembled students at the beginning, I could tell who was likely to be an active participant in the seminar and who would not.

It was easy for me to make these predictions and I was pretty confident that I would be proven right, and I usually was. But how did I do it? Hard to tell. But I have taught for many years and encountered thousands of students and this wealth of experience undoubtedly played a role in my ability to make snap judgments. If pressed to explain my judgments I might say that it was the way the students sat, their body language, the way they made eye contact, the expression on their faces, and other things like that.

But while I am confident about my ability to predict the students’ subsequent behavior in the seminar, I am not nearly as confident in the validity of the reasons I give. And this is consistent with what Gladwell reports in his book. Many of the experts who made good judgments did not know how they arrived at their conclusions or, when they did give reasons, the reasons could not stand up to close scrutiny.

He gives the example of veteran tennis pro and coach Vic Braden. Braden found that when watching tennis players about to make their second serve, he could predict with uncanny accuracy (close to 100%) when they would double fault. This is amazing because he was watching top players (who very rarely double fault) perform on television, and many of the players were people he had never seen play before. But what drove Braden crazy was that he could not say how he made his predictions. He just knew in a flash of insight that they would, and no amount of watching slow-motion replays enabled him to pinpoint the reasons.

But Gladwell points out that we use thin-slicing techniques even is situations where we do not have much experience or expertise and these judgments can lead us astray. In later postings, I will describe the kinds of situations where snap judgments are likely to lead us to shaky conclusions and where we should be alert.

POST SCRIPT: Charlie Wilson’s War

The film with the above name tries to make a comedy out of the role that the US played in creating the Taleban in Afghanistan. Stanley Heller points out that this was no laughing matter for the million Afghans who died as a result of the geostrategic games played by the Soviet Union and the Carter-Reagan governments.